Sunday, October 07, 2018

The Emotion Of Us

Understanding the expressions and body language of the other people is a skill that comes more naturally to some of us than others, but it is among the most essential things we must learn if we are to live satisfying lives. Most young children arrive at our school with at least some understanding of this: after all, they have been studying their parents' faces for their entire lives. Some easily learn to apply what they have learned to the rest of us, while others need some help in making sense of the often confusing twists and turns they see in the faces and bodies of others.

I find myself frequently pointing out the facial expressions of children, especially early in the school year, making factual statements like, "Mary's face looks angry," or "I can tell Hank is sad because he is crying." I strive to avoid the language of command, so I don't say, "Look at her face," the way I've heard other educators doing, but rather stick to simple statements about what I'm seeing, directing the children's attention toward their classmates in the expectation that they will make their own decision to join me in my contemplation of the external manifestations of emotion. For some, the emotion is so strong, or their own sense of shame is so great, that they simply can't look, and that's fine, it tells me they already at some level understand and any additional browbeating from me will only serve to turn their attentions away from the other child and onto me, the adult who is browbeating.

It's useful to contemplate emotions when the emotions under discussion are not actually present. I find the classic children's song If You're Happy and You Know It a good starting point for community discussions of how to identify how others are feeling. We start conventionally with "happy." Sometimes I just show them with my own face, sometimes I show them a picture of a happy child, sometimes I make a happy face with pieces of felt on our felt board. Inevitably, some, sometimes most, of the children reflect "happy" faces back at me, which I point out, "I see that Grace has a happy face . . . and so does Terry . . . and so does Francis . . ." and so on. Usually, I point out the shape of their mouths, the light in their eyes, and as I do, they look around at one another, seeing the admittedly artificial representations of what happy looks like on the faces of others.

We then go to "sad." We show one another our sad faces with downturned lips and worried eyebrows. "If you're sad and you know it, cry a tear . . . Boo hoo," we sing, using our fists to wipe away the pretend tears. We show one another angry faces, pinching our mouths or gritting our teeth and lowering our eyebrows. "Sometimes," I say, "the angry fills up our whole bodies," so we stand up and stomp our feet to help "get the angry out." We show one another our surprised faces and our frightened faces. Sometimes children suggest other emotions, like "frustrated" or "jealous" and we try to identify how we can see those feelings on the faces of others.

The highlight emotion, however, is always "silly." Everyone enjoys making their silly faces, striving to make one another laugh, "Look at my silly face!" In real life silly faces are usually invitations to play, to join in, to do something wild and out of the ordinary: it's happiness inflated with giddiness, giggles, and gusto and it always loves company. Being silly together almost always involves looking deeply into the other person, connecting with them through face and body, giggling, agreeing and not giving a damn that we're making fools of ourselves. When we're on the outside of silliness, there is a tendency to sometimes think things are about to spin out of control and as adults we too often think we need to step in, to calm things, to re-direct, but I think that's usually a false premise. 

Children often tell me that I'm silly, to which I reply, "Thank you. That's a compliment." It tells me they feel invited to play with me, which is after all, why we're all here. Young children may still need to work on reading happy, sad, and angry in other people, to develop the habit of studying the faces and bodies of others for insight into their emotional state, but silly is something they always understand. It is in many ways, the emotion of us.

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